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Dialectic and Coincidence of Secular and Sacred

In spite of his momentous discovery of the historical dimension of humanity, Vico still believes, like Aristotle, that the proper object of science can only be eternal essences. Like Cusanus, Vico takes mathematics as an exemplary model for all fields of knowing. But unlike the natural scientists, he considers mathematical objects to be the free inventions of the human mind rather than any sort language of nature (Galileo). Because we make them, we can know them. The same holds also for much more practical and primitive inventions of human beings like religious rites. An archaic model for the fundamental character of knowing as a human construction through doing can be found in cultic ritual. Whereas constructive geometry counts as the model of certain knowledge in modern authors such as Descartes and Spinoza, Vico privileges religion as resource for our substantive scientific knowledge. Religions are primordial historical institutions made by humans and keys to a science of history and culture.

Hegel’s philosophy is similarly turned toward human spirit and its activity as the maker of its world. World history is its home, not nature or the stars. Spirit goes out of itself into the world, dividing itself in Selbstentzweiung (“self-diremption”) and exiting from itself in Selbstauflerung (“self-externalization”). Yet it does so in order to achieve freedom from external conditioning by sublating the Other that it encounters in nature or history, remaking this Other in its own image as itself and its own. Through its unceasing activity, Hegelian spirit appropriates everything back into itself. It has no intrinsic content of its own apart from this activity of mediating all that is other than it. Hegel corrects the Kantian dualism of theory and practice, intensifying the sense


Giuseppe Mazzotta’s recapitulatory concluding remarks in The New Map of the World: The Poetic Philosophy of Giambattista Vico (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999) illuminate Vico’s orientation to the Other and Unknown against the detailed back-drop of scientific discovery in his day (251-52).

in which we come to know even our own selves together with everything else only by acting in history.

Karl Lowith highlights the secularizing drift of Vico’s observations on the verum-factum principle as it was relayed by Hegel and the German Idealists and then further exploited by Benedetto Croce.[1] But Vico’s inference from his principle is emphatically not that humans are the only makers of the world they inhabit. Quite to the contrary, Vico recognizes the divine agency of providence as the guiding principle of history. Although humans are able to know the historical world because they are actively involved in forging it, they do so always only in relation to something—or rather Someone—else. There is a dialectic between human making and divine providence. The divine corrects the human (“talvolta tutte contrarie ai proponimenti degli uomini,” 343), which over the course of time, in Vico’s corsi and ricorsi, inevitably devolves into humans acting self-destructively against their own interests.

Vico sees providence as operating in history more essentially, or at least more intelligibly, than in nature. We cannot understand its operation in nature because we do not participate in making nature. The cause and ends of Creation are revealed, instead, through the relation of God with humanity. Personal, historical relations are primary in the Christian vision and in biblical narration, since they are what we as human beings can understand.

In denying the truth for secular philosophy that humans make their own world by themselves, Vico is diametrically opposed to Hegel—or at least to left-wing Hegelians (Linkshegelianer). Human making for Vico is not autonomous; it is, rather, bound to a divine Will, which “provides” for humans. What actually results from history is far different from what humans aim at and envisage. This is acknowledged even by certain secularists in their recognition of unconscious drives as principles dominating human destiny. Still, they are determined to remain blind to any higher purpose. A chief significance for Vico of that higher purpose turns out to be to preserve a dimension of the humanly Unknown as an orienting lodestar. This makes his new science “uncanny.” The verum-factum principle entails an absolute epistemological skepticism: the original poet creators know not what they do. They are absolutely creative in their ««knowing. Later, rational reflection becomes aware of this ignorance at the origin of language and culture, yet remains still beholden to it. All cultured knowledge is founded on original ignorance.

  • [1] Carl Löwith, Vicos Grundsatz: verum et factum convertuntur. Seine theologische Prämisse und deren säkulare Konsequenzen (Heidelberg: C. Winter, 1968). 2 Sandra Rudnick Luft, Vico’s Uncanny Humanism: Reading the New Science between Modern and Postmodern (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003), 64-65.
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